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Between the Lines Features Leads: One Size Doesn't Fit All

By John D. Banusiewicz
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 22, 1998 – Every writer welcomes the creative opportunity presented by an assignment to write a feature story. But experienced writers are careful not to let creativity become an end unto itself at the expense of telling the story quickly and directly.

Here's a feature lead that tries to set a scene:

"The rolling hills in the distance glisten with dew, refracting the first rays of the day's sun into a kaleidoscope of colors held together by a soothing, orange glow.

"A slight breeze sweeps easily across the canvas, causing a gentle motion in the rich, green leaves that populate the trees standing sentry over the valley.

"Squirrels and birds, rousing from their slumber, fill the air with a pleasant mixture of sounds as they seem to discuss their plans for the day, even as the world around them comes to life at a more gradual and less enthusiastic pace. It's morning at Camp Swampy."

Lots of imagery and other literary devices there, but there's one problem: The reader still has no clue as to what the story is about. This lead would be equally at home - and equally misguided - on any story about anything that happens in the morning at Camp Swampy.

If the story is about the folks who get up in the middle of the night so the people who keep normal hours can eat breakfast, that morning sun should be glinting off the pots and pans hung in neat rows along the 60-foot wall of the chow hall's kitchen, and the chatter of the squirrels and birds needs to be punctuated by soldiers sounding off as they work up an appetite in their PT formation.

"The Word -- An Associated Press Guide to Good Newswriting," by Rene J. Cappon, warns feature writers not to get so wrapped up in writing as to forget they have a story to tell:

"Because features are less shackled to the moment than hard news stories, writers usually have more time," Cappon writes. "Proper use of that time takes a special discipline. Some writers, unfortunately, use it to lard their copy with clusters of adjectives, purple passages and other decorative devices. If you feel the decorative impulse coming on, lie down until it goes away. Strong feature writing is simple, clear, orderly, free of labored mannerisms that call attention to the writing itself rather than the substance."

There's room for color and description in feature leads, but only if the writing addresses elements that help the reader understand in those early sentences where the story is going. Cappon again: "There's never any doubt about the point of a straight news story; the lead tells you. In features, that point may be postponed. You don't have to play it out explicitly, in the first graph or two. But readers need to know soon what the story is all about, and why they should go on reading. Bury this crucial point too far beneath anecdote, description and atmospherics, and you'll exasperate readers rather than intrigue them."


The initial posting of last month's "Between the Lines" contained an error in the instructions for joining the Military Editors list server e-mail forum. To join the forum, send an e-mail message to LISTSERV@DTIC.MIL with SUBSCRIBE MIL-EDITORS-L Your Name as the body of the message, with your real name in place of the words "Your Name." You'll receive a couple of confirmation messages with further instructions, and then you'll receive all postings and be able to make your own. MIL-EDITORS-L had 160 members as of May 1.

(Banusiewicz is the Editors Course coordinator at the Defense Information School, Fort George G. Meade, Md.)

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